On Monday, December 23, 2013, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled on our motion for summary judgment against the Conan Doyle Estate in the case brought in my name last February. The case challenged the Estate’s contention that Laurie R. King and I needed to license the right for creators to pen new stories about the literary figures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. The Court’s ruling states, in brief, that creators are free to use the characters of Holmes and Watson without licensing them from the Conan Doyle Estate. The Court cautioned that new stories about the pair can’t use elements that appear exclusively in the ten post-1922 stories by Conan Doyle (those that remain in copyright). However, elements from the fifty pre-1923 stories are in the public domain.
The ruling is a victory for Sherlockians everywhere. We sought to establish that the Estate was wrong in claiming that no new stories could be written about Holmes or Watson without the Estate’s permission. We believe that Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world. Now creators can freely use the characters without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle’s heirs.
“For many years, U.S. motion picture studios, television networks and publishers have accepted without challenge the insupportable position of the Conan Doyle Estate that a paid license was required to create new works based on the pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories,” said Jonathan Kirsch, a member of our legal team, who was represented in court by Scott Gilbert of Polcinelli, Inc. “We believe that Les Klinger is the first and only creator who refused to pay for a license that he did not need and challenged the position of the Conan Doyle Estate in court. Thanks to his courage, commitment and vision, the ruling of the District Court represents a clear legal victory, not only for Les and his co-editor, Laurie R. King, but for every creator who seeks to draw on the Canon to create new works.”
We never disputed that elements from the post-1922 stories remain in copyright. If an author wants to write about a character that appears only in one of those stories, the Estate’s permission is required. We cherish the remaining 10 stories, and we respect the Estate’s right to control them.
The full opinion can be read on the www.free-sherlock.com website.
We were asked about the import of footnote 8 (on page 20) of the opinion, in which the Court states that it is not ruling on the copyright status of the character. This must be read in the context of the Court’s finding, that the character consists of pre-1923 elements (that are clearly public domain) and post-1922 elements (subject to copyright). Thus the entire character is not free from copyright protection, but plainly pre-1923 elements such as the characters’ names, their family backgrounds, their education, the pipes, the cigarettes, the deerstalker, Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson, 221B Baker Street, etc., are all now freely usable.
Looking ahead, we plan to complete In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, the subject of the case, a collection of stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon written by major cross-genre authors, to be published by Pegasus Books in 2014.
Thanks to all of our supporters, but very special thanks to Jonathan Kirsch, the principal architect of the case, Scott Gilbert of Polsinelli PC, who led the charge in the courtroom, Kourtney Mulcahy of Hinshaw & Culbertson who worked with Scott, our volunteer legal advisers Darlene Cypser and Betsy Rosenblatt, and our expert witnesses Steve Rothman and Peter Blau.